With a simple kneel, he became the most influential athlete of the 21st century
Out of uniform and therefore practically out of the general public eye, Colin Kaepernick sat throughout the nationwide anthem prior to the San Francisco 49ers’ very first preseason video game in 2016. He did it once again the next week, and once again the minute passed with little notification.
On Aug. 26, 2016, after the 49ers’ 3rd preseason video game, Kaepernick was inquired about his quiet demonstration throughout the anthem. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of color,” he stated. “To me, this is bigger than football, and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way.”
The next week, after speaking with with previous NFL gamer and Green Beret Nate Boyer, Kaepernick chose rather to kneel. With that single action, Kaepernick set in movement waves that even now specify sports in 21st-century America. It was the single most substantial act of demonstration considering that the 1968 Olympics, and Kaepernick himself required tough discussions in America like nobody considering that Muhammad Ali. Appreciate him or hate him — and there is relatively no happy medium here — it’s clear that Colin Kaepernick is the most prominent professional athlete of the 21st century.
Kaepernick has actually required unpleasant discussions about patriotism and regard. He has actually opened eyes. He has actually solidified hearts. He made sports a more inclusive world for some, a more unpleasant experience for others. 5 years and one pandemic later on, it’s impressive just how much one single act of taking a knee rose the act of demonstration to the leading edge of nationwide discussion and completely altered the face of sports.
“The pendulum has swung so far since he began kneeling five years ago,” states David Carter, a sports market expert and creator of the Sports Service Group. “[Today], social activism is the norm. Five years ago, it was an outlier.”
January 1, 2017. Kaepernick strolls off the field in Santa Clara, California, after the last video game of the 49ers’ season, a 25-23 loss to the Seahawks. He later on requests for his release from the group after being informed he’ll be cut. In Spite Of heading into the 2017 season, he isn’t provided a job, and has actually not taken another breeze in an NFL video game.
The present state of professional athlete demonstration initially took off into the American awareness with Kaepernick, however the act of demonstration throughout sporting occasions go back a minimum of to 1968, when and triggered an around the world firestorm of outrage. Ali wove the principle of demonstration into his really identity. More just recently, the Miami Heat in 2012. 2 years later on, a number of members of the then-St. Louis Rams in uniformity with protestors in close-by Ferguson, Missouri.
However Kaepernick’s choice in 2016 to move the demonstration straight into the nationwide anthem altered the instructions and speed of professional athlete demonstrations.
“He turned the athletic field into a contested political space,” states Dave Zirin, author of the upcoming book “The Kaepernick Effect: Taking a Knee, Changing the World.”
“We’re taught that the athletic field is an apolitical place, where everybody can gather regardless of politics. The reality is, that isn’t necessarily true. The playing field is a place of patriotism, where we celebrate the troops, where hyper-corporatism is selling whatever isn’t nailed down. Those are political features, whether one likes them or not.”
Prior to Kaepernick, pregame demonstrations were simple sufficient to dismiss or neglect. A demonstration throughout the anthem — throughout what’s expected to be the one spiritual, quiet minute of a video game — was something else completely. And Kaepernick’s demonstration kept going on, and on, and on, all season long.
“I’m not anti-American,” Kaepernick stated after the very first video game where he kneeled, where he was booed constantly by San Diego Chargers fans. “I love America. I love people. That’s why I’m doing this. I want to help make America better.”
“He didn’t just say police brutality was bad,” Zirin states. “He said there’s a gap between what this nation says it stands for and the lived experience of Black Americans.”
This was a subtlety that didn’t make it through the very first news cycle. The act of Kaepernick’s demonstration, not the factors behind it, ended up being the flashpoint: Are you for or versus kneeling throughout the anthem? When it emerged that prior to the demonstrations, Kaepernick used socks , and later on in the season , latest thing dispute moved even more and even more far from his initial message.
And after that came Donald Trump.
September 22, 2017. President Donald Trump is at the podium in Huntsville, Alabama. Although Kaepernick hasn’t played a video game considering that January, he and his demonstrations are on Trump’s mind. “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say,, out, he’s fired. He’s fired!’” Trump says. He later adds that protesting players are “hurting the game.” For the rest of the season, Kaepernick will be the stake that Trump continues to drive into the heart of the NFL.
Trump’s declaration put respect for the flag, not social justice, at the center of the arena. In response, NFL players across the league took a knee in solidarity the next week, and joined in the initial round of demonstrations. As the season wore on, a few players continued to kneel … and Kaepernick remained unsigned.
Patriotism became the prize, with each side charging that it held a greater claim on the true meaning of being American. Many Americans — particularly veterans and their families — saw Kaepernick’s protest as inherently disrespectful to the military because it took place during the national anthem. Others noted that the military defends all freedoms, including the freedom to protest during the national anthem. Matt Ufford, a sportswriter and former Marine, tried to find a middle path in :
“When Colin Kaepernick first sat during the anthem,” Ufford wrote, “I took offense. How could I not? Kaepernick rejected a ritual that was part of my identity as an American. But it was also his First Amendment right to protest peacefully. I swore an oath to defend the Constitution, not my feelings … I had to say it to myself: It’s not about me. It’s not about the troops. It’s about Kaepernick’s experience as a Black man in America. And he started the protest because he saw Black men dying preventable deaths.”
It’s clear why Kaepernick’s protest caught fire, and why it continues to serve as the North Star and shorthand for all athlete protests. Along with partisan rage, the NFL is the closest America now comes to a common language — were NFL games. The quarterback is the most visible position on the field, the best-known player in the stadium, and Kaepernick himself was only a few years removed from nearly winning the Super Bowl.
An NFL quarterback using the national anthem as a medium for delivering a message was a cultural shockwave unlike any felt in sports in at least half a century, and it forced American leagues, teams, sponsors and fans to rethink — or retrench — in the face of protest. Supporters of Kaepernick found in him a common cause.
Many of Kaepernick’s loudest critics, meanwhile, questioned his patriotism; his dedication to his cause; even his standing to speak on behalf of victims, given his own relatively privileged upbringing. Undisguised racism littered comment sections and Facebook posts on Kaepernick stories.
Less emotionally charged critiques dug into the numbers to investigate the statistical evidence for Black men dying at the hands of police officers. Since 2015, a regularly updated database of police shootings. For the year 2016, the Post found that 234 Black men were killed by police, 19 of whom were unarmed.
To be clear: no unjustifiable death at the hands of police is acceptable. Any number above zero is an unforgivable tragedy. But critics of the tenor of Kaepernick’s protest contended that focusing on wrenching, appalling individual stories rather than cumulative data gave a distorted picture of the relative danger.
“We can and should honor the spirit of the protests. But we cannot allow ourselves to let emotion, however justified, overwhelm reality,” Andrew Sullivan wrote in New York magazine in 2017. “To give the impression that police are gunning down Black men in America solely because they are Black is a dangerous exaggeration that undermines the vital work of the police. It’s also a profound indictment of a nation that America, in this respect, simply doesn’t deserve.”
After the 2016 season, Kaepernick largely stopped speaking to the national media. At his hastily organized 2019 tryout in Atlanta, he at what would have been an opportune time to expand on his message. His strategy to remain silent has left a vacuum that supporters and critics have rushed to fill.
August 26, 2020. Four years to the day after Kaepernick’s first protest, demonstrations break out across the sports world in response to the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The Milwaukee Bucks walk out of a playoff game, and in their wake, teams in the WNBA, MLB, NFL, MLS and others leave courts and fields empty, the crest of an enormous wave of athlete protests in the summer of 2020.
After a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd in May 2020 — exactly the kind of brutal police treatment Kaepernick was protesting in 2016 — teams and leagues faced a reckoning. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell “I wish we had listened earlier, Kaep, to what you were kneeling about and what you were trying to bring attention to.”
Leagues all along the sports spectrum, from the NFL to the PGA Tour, from the WNBA to NASCAR, made nods in 2020 toward social justice. Some pledged funds, some promised education, some placed pre-approved hashtags on the court or field or jerseys. In the months considering that then, the slogans have quietly disappeared from the leagues’ messaging, but the new focus on activism won’t go away quite so quietly.
“The sports industry is forever changed,” Carter says. “It’s going to be difficult to get back to where a contingent of fans [want it to be], for sports to be a diversion. I’m not sure that’s going to exist any further.”
“It’s interesting to see how quickly the NFL evolved, from ‘these are not the values of our audience’ to ‘these are our values, and our audience needs to adjust,’ ” Lewis says. “It’s fascinating how quickly the NFL has reversed course.”
The ripples of the Kaepernick demonstrations have settled, and the sports industry has gone through several cycles of backlash and counter-backlash — as well as the wrenching disruption of the pandemic and the 2020 social justice protests. Whatever sports may look like in 2030, they won’t mirror the less-activist days of, say, 2010. That has significant implications for fans, teams and athletes alike.
As the concept of athlete protest has become normalized in the post-Kaepernick era, fans’ attitudes have changed. At the time of Kaepernick’s first protest, only 28 percent of respondents to a Yahoo News/YouGov poll found his actions “appropriate.” Two years later, that figure had risen only a few points, to 35 percent. But by the summer of 2020, in the wake of the George Floyd story and the resulting widespread protests, — 52 percent — believed it is “OK for NFL players to kneel during the national anthem to protest police killings of African Americans.”
That change in attitude reflects the change in the relationship between fan and athlete. Zirin states that the days of catering only to the apolitical fan who wants nothing more from sports than “escape” are over. He contends that Kaepernick’s protest is part of a long tradition of athletes, stretching back to Ali, who refused to be seen as mere performers.
“It’s forced people to open their eyes who, by choice, were not opening their eyes,” he says. “What Kaepernick did was, he severed segregation and punctured privilege. He took away the idea that you can imbibe in sports, particularly the excitement and genius that Black athletes provide in sports, but not care what they have to say about the communities from which they come.”
That’s a tough pill to swallow for fans not accustomed to focusing on the athletes as anything more than diversions. But here’s where the money comes into play. The NFL’s ratings dipped in 2017, and there’s ample debate about why, with reasons ranging from cable TV cord-cutting to outrage at objecting athletes to the wider range of available entertainment options. Critics predicted doom for the NFL, but well into the 2030s suggest otherwise.
Kaepernick’s protests certainly turned some fans away from the league. Even so, networks and advertisers expect that the league will remain incredibly lucrative because of the increasing presence of gambling and the value of live television … and despite any backlash against protests.
Teams, too, are doing the same calculus, and many are finding it’s worthwhile to position themselves as sympathetic to protests and social justice causes. This comes with a cost, but as Carter notes, many leagues and teams are determining that it’s a bearable one.
“You do run the risk of alienating certain fan groups,” he says. “Certain fan demographics are not as interested in supporting [protest], whether because of age, gender or region. Sports teams have to calibrate which fans they are alienating, versus which fans they are catering to. If they believe in catering to a more profitable fan base, they may be willing to go all in on social activism, and the net gain may be higher. If they lose someone who’s not spending as much money, the risk of replacing them, relative to the risk of replacing a younger, more avid fan might be OK.”
There will be concessions to fans who don’t want to focus on the social justice element of sports — the national anthem is rarely broadcast, for instance, and commentary about protest causes is now virtually nonexistent — but protest and social allyship are now like sponsor logos and American flags, always there if you look in the right direction.
August 1, 2021. Team USA’s Raven Saunders, silver medalist in the shot put at the Tokyo Olympics, takes a moment at the podium to raise her arms in an “X” formation to express uniformity for oppressed individuals of all stripes. Despite the International Olympic Committee’s Rule 50 prohibiting any kind of protest, Saunders is one of many athletes exhibiting various forms of protest at the Games.
Although Kaepernick’s name remains a reliable way to drum up both inspiration and outrage, it comes up less and less in statements of protest. In the past five years, he has reportedly donated millions to various causes, published books, and pursued community outreach through his . While he no longer has an NFL contract, he’s signed sponsorship deals with companies like Nike, who has produced a line of popular Kaepernick jerseys … as well as .
But he has stayed largely silent on a broader scale. His NFL opportunities are through, even though . He’s transitioning from player to symbol, and others — from high school students to fellow pro athletes — are following his example.
“In five years, we’re going to be dealing with a generation of athletes who grew up thinking of Colin Kaepernick as a hero,” Zirin says. “He gave [them] a method and a language [of protest], where before that did not exist.”
“I haven’t experienced police brutality, or racism, in that way,” U.S. Women’s National Team captain Megan Rapinoe . “But knowing that it obviously happens, and knowing that it’s a very real thing, and that there’s something I can do to lend to that movement, or lend to those voices, or to support them, that’s important.”
“It’s undeniable he has accelerated the opportunity for other athletes to get involved and not be concerned about losing contracts with teams or endorsement contracts,” Carter says. “He’s inoculated the next generation of athletes against that.”
“The NFL really wanted Colin Kaepernick to become a ghost story to frighten a new generation of players,” Zirin says. “Instead of being a ghost, he became an animating spirit.”
For now, Kaepernick connects with the public at large , which has already published “Abolition for the People,” a 30-essay manifesto, with a children’s book, “I Color Myself Different,” slated for publication next April. In February 2020, Kaepernick also announced that an autobiography was in the works.
The pendulum swings back and forth. Athletes who demonstration today will still draw criticism, but on a smaller, social media level, not the apocalyptic lead-the-nationwide-news scope of Kaepernick in 2016. An professional athlete of any age speaking out on matters of social justice or awareness isn’t a rarity, but a frequent, almost constant, occurrence. The divisiveness still exists, but so too does a growing acceptance of vocal athletes. Change has actually pertained to all of sports, and all of it derived from one choice to kneel.
Jobber Wiki author Frank Long contributed to this report.